The Clinton-Obama umbrage war continues.

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March 11 2008 6:10 PM

The Umbrage War, Continued

Clinton and Obama jockey to take advantage of Geraldine Ferraro's provocative comments.

A reporter will never go wrong at a Clinton or Obama press conference by asking: "Senator, what about the latest outrage?" The question is always apt, because taking umbrage and responding to it has become the chief daily business of the Democratic campaign. Tuesday, Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro initiated the latest round. "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," said Walter Mondale's former running mate. Immediately, Barack Obama's foreign policy adviser, Susan Rice, who is African-American, said, "I think if Sen. Clinton is serious about putting an end to statements that have racial implications … then she ought to repudiate this comment." If that sounded familiar, it's because Rice was mirroring the outrage Clinton campaign officials expressed days earlier when Rice's colleague Samantha Power called Clinton a "monster." Power severed her affiliation with the Obama campaign. Clinton's communications director merely said of Ferraro, "We disagree," but by the end of the day Clinton had distanced herself from Ferraro, saying she disagreed with her.

The Clinton campaign moved through the recognizable scale of umbrage reactions: The first is to have a spokesman tut-tut. The next level would be for Ferraro to apologize immediately to Obama. The step beyond that would be for Clinton to disagree, which she did but which is far short of denouncing Ferraro publicly. The final level would be for Clinton to fire Ferraro (or, in the case of an unpaid ally, to ostracize her thoroughly). I suppose that if the umbrage wars escalate, there could be a further level in which the candidate actually flogs the misbehaving adviser in Philadelphia's Independence Hall.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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In some cases, knowing what to do with a bum ally is easy. When Larry Craig was caught propositioning a male police officer in a Minnesota airport bathroom, Mitt Romney jettisoned the man who had once been his campaign's senate liaison, saying his behavior was "disgusting." Obama couldn't keep Power, because her remarks directly challenged the central idea that his campaign was founded on elevating the political dialogue. She was out about an hour after the Clinton campaign arranged a conference call demanding her ouster. When a Clinton staffer in Iowa was trafficking in smears about Obama's supposed Muslim heritage, she was bounced immediately.

The benefit to casting aside a supporter is that a candidate can claim the high ground the next time an opponent's supporter misbehaves. Had someone in our campaign even thought such a thing, they'd have been fired. It also means you don't have to fire the next offender on your own staff so quickly. When reporters asked Clinton's aides why the campaign had not censured Bob Johnson for making a joke about Barack Obama's past drug use, they ducked the question by pointing out that Bill Shaheen, Clinton's New Hampshire co-chairman, resigned after raising the issue of Obama's admitted past drug use. Any smart campaign of the future should salt their organization with expendable allies who can be denounced immediately and publicly ostracized, developing cover for the inevitable moment when someone important screws up and needs to be protected.

So why didn't Clinton immediately denounce Ferraro? She was initially insulated from having to do it quickly because she has distance from the former veep candidate. Power was a top Obama adviser. Ferraro is only on her finance committee and acts as a surrogate, one of a far larger group of loosely affiliated supporters who defend the candidate on afternoon cable news programs. The closer the offender is to the candidate, the higher the price for keeping him or her on. That may be why John McCain is not under as much pressure to denounce Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, for saying that Barack Obama's middle name, Hussein, sends a signal to terrorists. King is merely a Republican—he isn't affiliated with McCain's campaign.

Since candidates are naturally inclined to cling jealously to support, the formula for dealing with a radioactive ally is to move not one micrometer farther from them than necessary. And no candidate wants to give in to what the Washington Post's Anne Kornblut calls fauxmbrage—an opponent's overplayed act of outrage. By appearing to stand by Ferraro, Clinton risked offending African-American voters, but Obama already has that constituency pretty well locked up, so her risk is diminished (at least until she needs those same African-American voters in the general election).

When a candidate refuses to make anyone walk the plank, it's up to the other campaign to make sweeping generalizations about their opponent's underhanded tone and low character. After the Clinton team reacted tepidly to Ferraro's remarks, the Obama campaign immediately escalated, scheduling a conference call on which strategist David Axelrod condemned Ferraro and the Clinton campaign for "unleashing the ugliest kinds of forces in our society." Barack Obama added his own censure: "I don't think that Geraldine Ferraro's comments have any place in our politics or the Democratic Party," he said. "I think they were divisive."

When Clinton finally spoke out about Ferraro, that only put the umbrage/counter-umbrage cycle into a new rotation. Obama's spokesman said Clinton didn't go far enough, and Clinton's campaign manager accused Obama's aides of milking the moment for political advantage.

Clinton opponents charge that by not sufficiently denouncing Ferraro, she benefits from racist sentiment kicked up by Ferraro's comments. By publicly disagreeing with Ferraro, Clinton limited the chances for that charge to stick, though her best defense may come to her in a day or so. Given how many opportunities there are to cry foul, Clinton may be able to return to the high ground as someone supporting Barack Obama gives her a chance to take umbrage again.